A day in Chicago between flights. It starts with the shuttle back to O'Hare and then a long rattling train into Chicago. I have a vague idea of what to see, but less of an idea of how to get there.

My random guess turns out to be pretty good as I stumble up out of the train station into the city, facing the Sears Tower. The tower's lobby is full of Amazing Facts about the tower, although they appear to have forgotten to mention that it's somewhat smaller than the CN Tower. That inadequancy notwithstanding, the glass skyboxes are still terrifying.

Chicago provides my first ever visit to a Dunkin' Donuts. Exciting, no? There's a good chance it'll be my last. I partake on my way to Chicago's Millennium Park, which is a rather splendid public space, and all the better now the idiotic policy restricting photography of public art has been relaxed. It's a bright, crisp November day, and the Chicago architecture is beautifully reflected in the Bean's curves.

I finish the day with a nice walk along the lake shore as far as the Museum Campus, before calling it a day and taking the long rattling journey home.

Posted Sun Nov 28 00:00:00 2010 Tags: USA

With an evening flight back to Chicago later, I take advantage of the morning to visit the Science Centre, and successfully buy a ticket for the IMAX before I spot it's in French. Oh well. It's all about the visuals. Although watching Peter Sissons and Anna Ford announcing space news in French is a strangely discombobulating experience.

The archeological museum is over the road and promises a hi-tech multimedia experience of Montreal's history and heritage, and it delivers. The city's founding and growth is projected onto the archeological remains of the old city and the screens surrounding us.

The audience files out of the theatre and down to the basement to mingle with the excated remains of Montreal and the chunks of history signposted between them.

And that's the end of my short time in Montreal. I've enjoyed my visit greatly. The city has heaps of character compared with Toronto, even if that does seem to manifest in a prevalence of strips clubs. Canada in general, and Montreal in particular, has an agreeable coffee culture. Handy both for fighting back the cold and for the internets it brings.

I've also found it a great excuse to rekindle the French I haven't used for about ten years. And that's all gone better than expected.

US immigration is conveniently sited in Canada, so they get the probing out of the way before takeoff. They are as interested as ever in my residence in Saudi Arabia. In Chicago, the airport bus conveys me flawlessly to my destination for the evening.

Posted Sat Nov 27 00:00:00 2010 Tags: USA

Up at an uncivilised hour in order to get a lift to O'Hare on my host's way into work. I use my 2 ½ hours at O'Hare productively by losing my boarding pass. Best guess is that it got scooped out of the tray by the X-ray machine. The drama is fairly anticlimactic as the gate staff replace it the moment they finish their conversation.

As my waiting approaches its end, the skies darken and the lightning starts up. Operations close the gate down and we wait out the rain. We're about an hour late when the storm passes and we get to depart.

It's a short flight, and we've pulled back 20 minutes by the time we land in Buffalo. The best way of getting to Niagara Falls from here appears to be a $45 taxi. Half a hour and $50 later, I'm standing happily by the side of the Niagara River in cheerful anticipation of seeing one of the iconic places of the world.

The waters from the US side are, as promised, less spectacular. It isn't long before I walk across the bridge, out of the US and into Canada.

My first experience in Canada is a Canadian grill which allows me to breakfast on Proper Bacon overlooking the Falls. My second experience is getting my cash card rejected and having to exist on plastic.

The Falls are indeed spectacular from this angle, and I gradually walk the length of the Parkway to the Horseshoe Falls in the deteriorating weather. It's hard to say whether the water in the air is spray or rain. Whichever it is, it's definitely wet. It's also obscuring the view - the middle of the Falls is a white out from all directions.

I'm trying not to be too BTDT about the whole experience, but particularly here in the off season, there isn't that much to entertain you once you've gazed upon the water. I come back for a fresh look when it gets dark and complete my visit by getting the experience of the Falls all lit up. It's pretty funky picked out in the multicoloured lighting, but it's also properly raining now so I finish my tourism for the evening and go to warm up in a coffee shop.

After almost a full day in Canada, I feel I'm experienced enough to share some observations on Canadians. Most importantly, they really do say 'eh'. They also do put cinnamon on everything. And finally... It's odd - the moment I step off the bridge, it all just feels more relaxed and easy-going. Canada, eh?

Posted Mon Nov 22 00:00:00 2010 Tags: USA

I'm shocked to find that I've taken almost no photos of Chicago. That's a shame because getting shown the sites by the locals is a great improvement over blundering around the tourist sites on your own. This visit boasted such attractions as a micro-brewery franchise, an all-the-pork-in-the-world restaurant and the bar from the Blue Brothers.

Posted Sun Nov 21 00:00:00 2010 Tags: USA

Conference wrap-up:

Supercomputing is the big annual conference for my industry, and this was my first visit. We were there to get ourselves noticed, as usual, and the toys brought along by our partners at CalIT2 did a pretty good job.

My interest here is in two main areas: the sysadmin track (which is a pretty minor part of the programme) and in gateway computing, a term which is used to mean alternative ways of accessing supercomputing. The latter delivers an interesting workshop, but the most I get from the former is a dried alligator head as a prize for my contribution.

And that's pretty much it but for the closing night party. The venue was Mardi Gras World, which is basically the warehouse where the floats are stored. The entertainment was a local jazz band and very good they were too.

So this morning I'm flying out again, back to Chicago to meet friends.

Posted Fri Nov 19 00:00:00 2010 Tags: USA

It's time to leave the Kingdom again. I flew out a couple of days ago, on the usual early o clock flight to Heathrow. The Saudia alternatives to this BA flight are at more civilised hours but there's a good reason to pick this one. Once we get over Egypt, BA has beer, and that's crucial for coping with the small child intent on destroying the back of my seat.

I've got a few days in the UK to do shopping and a few other errands. The important one is opening an offshore bank account, and I appear to have achieved that. I also crack after months of not having a watch, and invest in one that I hope is too nice for me to randomly destroy through neglect. Also, beer and curry.

So today will be a long day, flying from Heathrow to New Orleans. Crazy 7am start to get to Heathrow on time. I've picked American Airlines for my transatlantic flight because I've got a tight connection in Chicago, and I want to make it the airline's problem to get me on the second leg.

I've naively assumed that all transatlantic flights are much the same - where my experience is BA - but I'm not right. American is a proper trial. The in-flight entertainment is pitiful. There's no video on demand at all, and the choice is extremely limited. Even more shockingly, there's no free booze. The journey is as long and tedious as this post. Peering out of the window at Canada's frozen wastes does little to alleviate the boredom.

Happily, O'Hare is functioning better than I have been lead to expect. We land on time, immigration are swift and even polite, and I'm admitted to the country. My bags are soon re-checked onto the next leg of my journey and I'm on the way to the domestic terminal, which is where it all goes wrong.

The line for security is long and slow-moving, and uses up most of my remaining time. I'm getting twitchy as I finally reach the front of the line and dutifully undress in order to be violated by the hired goons.

I leave the security area in my socks, and hustle towards my gate, where my flight is ostensibly boarding. In reality, of course, it's not and they've just flicked the sign to "Last Call" to get all the sheeple in line before they open boarding.

The flight itself is uneventful and by the end of the day I'm ensconced in the disappointing Hilton Garden Inn with my colleagues.

Posted Sat Nov 13 00:00:00 2010 Tags: USA